There was a rather pleasing statistic doing the rounds over the weekend, detailing just how consistent Tony Pulis has been as a Premier League manager. In the last eight seasons, with Stoke, Crystal Palace and now West Brom, Pulis has finished between 11th-14th, gathering a total of between 42-47 points each time. No more, no less.
Depending on your point of view, this would appear to represent either rock solid reliability or the very worst in grinding mediocrity, a man who looks more like an exercise in statistical probability than a manager. In a football world that seems in permanent turmoil and chaos, in some respects it’s rather comforting to have someone who delivers the same thing every year with such plodding predictability.
It should be noted that Pulis’s bare results are a little misleading. The first two seasons at Stoke were spent establishing them in the top flight, and in the third they qualified for Europe after reaching the FA Cup final. When he arrived at Crystal Palace in 2013 they were stone bottom of the league with four points from 11 games, making their final tally of 45 and 11th place a quite remarkable achievement. Similarly at West Brom he took over a side heading south and turned them around to finish safely, with a points per game ratio that would’ve seen them in the top half if spread over the season. He is not necessarily a manager who just achieves the minimum and only brings the most boring results it’s possible to contemplate.
What Pulis is, though, is a manager who ‘does a job’. You know pretty more or less exactly what he’ll do: play a load of centre-backs, make you solid – not spectacular by any means, but most certainly stable. He’s a meat and potatoes boss, the master of the basics and, if that comes across as sniffy or a criticism, it is not meant to at all. Mastery of the basics is a surprisingly elusive skill with many managers, and most definitely better than the alternative. Those finishes tell us there is a ceiling to what Pulis can do, though. Pulis can take you so far, to comfort and safety, but not a great deal more than that.
Quique Sanchez Flores was doing a similar job at Watford: in the early part of the season he made them a solid, dependable outfit who kept things tight, then largely relying on Troy Deeney to set up some chances and Odion Ighalo to stick them away. They were basically safe by March, which for a team just up from the Championship is a pretty decent result. So, to a certain extent the outcry after his dismissal was understandable. Flores did what was asked of him, so of course sacking him would look harsh.
Unfortunately, when safety was pretty much assured, Watford were only heading one way. They were basically terrible in the second half of the season, Ighalo’s goals dried up and Flores’ approach became increasingly negative. The Pozzos, not afraid of a managerial decision that one might describe as ‘ruthless’, decided they didn’t believe Flores would actually improve on that performance next season, and acted.
While it seems cold, this was a perfectly sensible course of action, assuming they have got someone better lined up. Flores did one job, but as Simon Burnton wrote in the Guardian at the weekend, Watford needed someone who could do the next job. Based on the second half of this season, it didn’t look like he was the man for the second one. Of course the decision is a gamble, even more so if they don’t know who the next guy is going to be, but then again sticking with a manager is a gamble too. Form disappears, skills wane, enthusiasm dissipates; it’s a risky business, football.
To say Watford should simply be grateful for staying in the Premier League, and by extension that the total of their aims should be mere survival, shows a depressing paucity of ambition. Pointing to Leicester’s success this season is perhaps a little unfair because they’re such an extraordinary outlier, but it did at least prove that small clubs need not be satisfied with merely keeping their heads above water.
More teams should be like Watford. It’s obviously not a terribly nice way to treat a person, but more teams should try to spot when a manager has reached the capacity of what he can do, and try to preemptively upgrade. Southampton are the classic good example: they’ve stuck with Ronald Koeman and probably would’ve done the same with Mauricio Pochettino had he not been tempted away, but that’s because they think those men will do a better job in the future, rather than doing a good job in the past. It’s a version of prevention rather than cure, and suggests they really do have a plan and some ambition.
West Brom wouldn’t receive much criticism (from outside, anyway) if they kept Pulis around, because they know what he can do. That’s comforting, sensible and safe. But the flip side of knowing what he can do is that they can be pretty sure he’s not going to do much better than that. Managers with Pulis’s pragmatic style of play ask to be judged on their results, rather than aesthetics, something that Daniel Storey touched upon earlier this year, but if West Brom got rid of him now, they’d be doing exactly that.
When teams come up from the Championship they do not usually rely on the same squad of players that won promotion to perform in the top flight. When teams qualify for the Champions League they usually buy a few more players in order to compete at a higher level. As teams become more established in the Premier League they look for a higher calibre of player. So why shouldn’t they use the same approach for their managers?